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Cesar Cruz said it was a no-brainer when it came to adding Ray Particelli to his coaching staff.

The 1979 Justin-Siena grad and owner of Napa Valley Olive Oil dedicated 32 consecutive years to coaching prep basketball. Fifteen of those years were spent in two separate stints as St. Helena High’s head boys coach. The other 17 years were as the boys JV, varsity assistant and eventually the varsity head coach at his alma mater, leading the Braves for five seasons before stepping down in 2014.

Over the years Particelli cultivated a relationship with Cruz, head coach of both Calistoga High varsity basketball teams. Since he spent the past few years away from the coaching world, the Wildcats coach did his best to recruit him since he wasn’t committed to another local sideline.

“(Cruz has) been kind of bothering me for a couple years, wanting me to come out here,” Particelli said with a laugh. “I came out here last year and looked around a little bit and I like the kids because … they just play hard, regardless of talent.”

He spent some time with the girls’ program in the offseason, testing the chemistry to see if it would be a good fit.

Particelli also made it clear that he won’t be able to make every practice or every game because of other commitments he’s made the last few years. Before returning to the coaching ranks, he once told the Napa Valley Register that he went 32 years without missing a game or practice.

And even though Particelli is officially an assistant coach, it’s clear during games he has far more control than his title might imply.

“I’m a big believer in commitment, so I didn’t know how (to) preach that and not do it (myself),” he said. “So what we did was, I kind of test drove the team and the team test drove me during the summer.”

That time was also important because this would be his first time coaching girls at the high school level, and Particelli’s coaching style is, well, passionate.

“I started when I was like 22, and I’m 55 now, so I think it’s a kinder, gentler me anyways,” he said. “That was one of the things … I’ve always been very intense. If they start crying, what am I going to do with that? But it’s been good. I do as much as I can to let them know, ‘I scream at you when I know you’re making a mistake that you know better. It’s nothing personal. It’s just my reaction to it.’ And the girls are good about that.”

So far, the honeymoon has been going well. The Wildcats (7-4) won their first five games to open the season and have been pummeling their non-league opponents, winning by an average margin of 36 points.

“I believe it’s about the program – it’s not about me,” said Cruz, better known as “Shorty” in basketball circles. “If I can bring one of the best, successful coaches with 30 years’ experience … in the Napa Valley, why not bring him to Calistoga? That’s just not my opinion, in general, but a lot of coaches think that about him.”

The two stewards are leading a roster that’s overwhelmingly young, with one senior and 10 combined freshmen and sophomores.

However, with no Wildcats JV team, the sophomores already have a year of varsity experience under their belt.

Their first two losses came at their recent Gene Duffy Holiday Classic – both to Morro Bay, a Southern Section program from a city with double the population and an enrollment nearly three times the size of Calistoga’s.

The other two losses also came at the hands of larger-division teams, Del Norte and host Kelseyville, at last week’s 46th annual Stokes Invitational. Last year, Kelseyville claimed the North Central League I title, won a Division 4 playoff game, and even reached the state tournament.

Calistoga finished 14-11 overall last season, and was third in North Central League III play with a 10-4 record. Those marks were far from expected, too, after a 4-8 start and Cruz bracing for a rough ride with his freshmen-heavy team.

But the Wildcats caught fire toward the end of January, winning 10 of their last 12 regular-season games. That includes a streak of six straight to end league play.

Two of their four league losses were against Round Valley, which hosted them for a third meeting in the first round of the CIF North Coast Section Division 6 playoffs and the Mustangs made it 3 for 3 with a 55-30 drubbing in Covelo.

Still, that remarkable turnaround didn’t go unnoticed. Cruz was named All-County Co-Coach of the Year; Gilda Rojas made First Team All-League and was All-County Offensive Player of the Year; Vanessa Queipo was Second Team All-League and named All-County Newcomer of the Year; Lizbet Escobedo was a Newcomer finalist.

That trio represents the core of this year’s team, one that pushes the tempo, gets out in transition, and pressures opposing offenses into making mistakes.

“We’re at our best pushing the ball up the court,” said Cruz, who is in his sixth year at the helm. “That’s going to be our best offense. Like Ray (told the team after the Dec. 8 win over North Hills Christian), against tough teams, we’ve got to learn how to run our sets and our offense. Against good teams, we have to understand (the importance of) basketball IQ. We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’ve got the right tools right now with these young ladies.”

Rojas, the lone senior and a three-sport standout in soccer, basketball and softball, returns after averaging 17.2 points per game and 7.2 assists last season. She also scored over 30 points twice.

Through the first stretch of games, the Wildcats’ co-captain has kept last year’s momentum rolling as the team’s top scorer and primary ball handler with Escobedo ineligible for the first few weeks, the coaches said.

“You can tell she’s a senior,” Particelli said. “In a few words, she’s been the all-around, everything for the team, and that’s almost one of the issues. (The other players) look at her to (save them) sometimes.

“They’re starting to realize there’s some kids that can pitch in and help her. She’s been great. She’s been absolutely a fantastic leader for us. She’s kind of the calming flow out there, and her basketball IQ is phenomenal.”

Along with Escobedo and Queipo, the team’s other captains, the sophomores are Angeli Aquino (forward), Hayseel Barrera (power forward), Dayana Cordona (power forward), Laila Elkeshen (small forward), and Litzy Infante (wing).

The freshman class consists of Jimena Guerrero (point guard), Tully Leonard (center) and Sabrina Wells (forward).

It’s a group with more size than previous years, evidenced by Leonard at 5-foot-11 and Wells at 5-foot-10. It also has depth that allows the top players to rest without compromising the result.

“We fully, fully expect to be competitive,” Particelli said.

All of this culminates in some lofty expectations for a group that made the playoffs last season for the first time in a decade.

“From day one I said, ‘Road to the (league) championship (goes through Calistoga),’” said Cruz. “With no injuries, we should have a pretty good season.”

The Wildcats, who traveled to St. Helena for their final non-league game on Thursday, open NCL III play at Laytonville on Jan. 3 with a 5:30 p.m. tipoff.

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Sports Reporter

Yousef was a Napa Valley Register sports reporter from February 2015 to April 2018, and hosted the Napa Register Radio podcast. He is a proud UGA graduate and has written for the Sacramento Bee, The Advocate and the Athens Banner-Herald, among others.